The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC)

In order to estimate the threat from the most unstable glaciers in Antarctica, the UK and the US teamed up in their most important collaboration since WW2 – the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration (ITGC))

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An iceberg in the Amundsen Sea (image courtesy of my friend Gui Bortolotto)

Over the past decades, the amount of ice discharge from glaciers in the Thwaites region has almost doubled (and thus their freshwater addition to the global ocean). The question is, however, if the observed rapid thinning and retreat of glaciers are the early symptoms of a concerning run-away effect that causes the ice discharge to further increase. You must understand that parts of glaciers act like a dam that holds back water to prevent a flood. If Thwaites Glacier triggers a collapse of what lies beyond its ‘dam’, this would cause global sea-level to rise drastically… Holy Penguin !

I haven’t counted how many scientists are involved in the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, but I think it is around 100. That is ONE.HUNDRED. of the world’s top climate scientists that agree on climate change. One hundred people from different academic and cultural backgrounds, that all pull on the same string to answer the question if the run-away effect has already begun. But this large number of brainy people needs to be coordinated – how is that even possible ?

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Within this collaboration, eight projects have been identified. Some of them target the underlying processes through oceanic measurements using icebreakers; or by installing scientific instruments on the glacier surface; or even within and underneath the ice by drilling holes through it. These bore holes can extend through the water cavity and into the sediments on the sea floor – where one project studies what has happened in the past. The insight into the key processes at play is then forwarded to two ice-sheet modelling projects. Both use computer simulations of ice behavior, either on the front of the glacier where ice bergs calve off, or closer to the coastline where relatively warm ocean water eats away the floating ice from underneath. My job within this collaboration is the collection of ice thickness measurements on the ground and assisting with the installation of field stations. My personal goal is to gain a spatial understanding of the processes at play that cause some areas in this region to behave differently even though they are exposed to the same environmental changes.

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A perfect sunset in Antarctica (experienced by Gui Bortolotto from the icebreaker)

 

I feel deeply honored to be part of this dedicated group of scientists, that focus their efforts and work day and night to help prepare for the challenges that lay ahead for our society. Several conferences, workshops and the very international character of this impressive collaboration made me wonder why it shouldn’t be renamed to the International Thwaites Geeks Coordination – but luckily I’m not the one who had to come up with its name 😉

 

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Like-minded scientists meet during the Next Generation Retreat at the breathtaking Culford School, UK (image courtesy of Elaina Ford, British Antarctic Survey)

 

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Get ready ! Something cool is coming soon…

… it’s time to return to the coolest of all continents ! In exactly 4 weeks, we will be departing to conduct field research at the Thwaites Glacier – West Antarctica’s weak underbelly. Stay tuned for science updates from the deep field, first-hand knowledge of climate research in Antarctica, quirky facts about every-day camp life, and yes, even pictures of penguins ! Sign up for free and follow my 5th Antarctic rodeo. Yeehaw !

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“The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.”

— Sir Richard Burton

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More news from nowhere

This is our project… it has been our project for some time, and it will remain our project for some more time. And as David Hasselhoff says, it gets stranger every year:

Thanks to my friend Stepan for always fun climbing sessions, good laughs and video editing skills. I hope we will remember the sequence next time.

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Alpine Glaciology – Virtual Reality Special

Melting mountain glaciers all around our world are poster children for present-day climate change. But how do climate scientists monitor glaciers ? By doing fieldwork !

They go up there after winter to measure how much snow was falling onto the glacier surface (aka accumulation, a positive number), and return after summer to measure how much ice was melting (aka ablation, a negative number). The difference between these two numbers is called mass balance and tells us about the glacier’s health. A negative number corresponds to an overall loss in ice volume (bad), a positive number indicates glacier growth (good).

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But to calculate these two numbers, we need to know (1) how thick is the snow layer, (2) what is its average density and (3) where did most of the ice melt. This is why we have to carry a lot of heavy science gear up to the glacier and dig holes, probe around and drill into the ice surface to deploy stakes for when we will return after summer.

Left picture: Distribution of snow depth as measured with our probes. The most snow is close to the summit cliffs, where avalanche accumulation plays a major role in feeding the glacier. Right picture: Map of mass balance (colour coded) and location of the Equilibrium Line (where accumulation equals ablation).

We give our measurements to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, who compile a standardized data set for further research on the impact of climate change on glaciers worldwide. Please read this article if you would like further information about the Rolleston Glacier:

The impact of extreme summer melt on net accumulation of an avalanche fed glacier

…as always, please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions/comments or concerns. A big thanks to my ol’mate Thomas Langer for editing the 360 footage, and to HITLab for letting me use their camera and ongoing support.

 

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Back home – Safe’n Sound

G double o and b why e.... GOODBYE

We safely returned back to New Zealand ! After a couple of windy days at Jang Bogo, we hitched a ride on the ‘kiwi-herc’. The plane departed from the sea-ice runway, with strong crosswinds causing a rather adventurous take off. As we passed the Transantarctic Mountains, our friends from the nearby italian base Mario-Zucchelli even shared their precious pasta with us (Grazie Fratellini). Later, a crew member of the Royal New Zealand Air Force wasn’t super excited about me taking 360 photos inside the aircraft. Can you spot him ?

Inside a C130 Hercules in Antarctica

After six long hours we finally arrived in Christchurch around 3am. But how to finish such an expedition with style ? Reinhard and I decided to head straight to our local surf spot, where the rising sun greeted us with our first dawn in a month. How to stay warm after a cold kiwi surf ? Bring your Antarctic down jacket, duuude !

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A day in the field – Virtual Reality Special

Since the early days of polar exploration, public outreach has been an important duty of the few ones who could report from the icy world. Logbooks from whalers, diaries from individual expedition members and even their published work sold like hot cakes. Visitors of the polar regions thereby used the latest technology that was available to them to best describe what they experienced in this remote part of our planet. Pencil sketches were replaced with detailed drawings, which were later replaced with colorful paintings. Paintings were then replaced by photos. Photography developed to video, but what comes next ?

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A sketch of the glaciological features of the Priestley Glacier

In an attempt to bring our expedition as close as possible to the scientifically interested community, I was kindly provided with a state-of-the-art 360 degree video camera. Please sit back and enjoy what came out of it. For the true Antarctic experience (or until videos can also make you feel the freezing temperatures), I suggest sitting in your fridge ! Special thanks to my friends Rob Lindeman and Kris Tong from HIT Lab NZ for their support to show you a little piece of our journey. Sorry for low def, working on it…

 

PS: To answer the question what was the weirdest thing that I have experienced in Antarctica… talking to a selfie-stick in the middle of nowhere made me really wonder !

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Are there rainbows in Antarctica ?

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A halo above our camp at the Priestley Glacier

Today, a lesson in optics. Rainbows are formed when sunlight travels through a drop of liquid water. As a sun-ray enters the drop, its direction is refracted because the medium has changed from air to water. This is similar to sticking a straw in a glas of water – the straw looks kinked. The refracted sun-ray is now travelling through the water drop on a straight line, until it hits the drop’s boundary. Here it is reflected like a snooker ball that is bouncing back from the cushion – the reflection angle is the same as the incidence angle. The now reflected sun-ray then hits the drop’s boundary for a second time and leaves the drop where it is refracted again at the water-air boundary. The important thing is, however, that refraction angles are dependent on wavelength but reflection angles aren’t. For this reason, the initially ‘white’ sun-ray is separated into different colors, causing red light to be refracted less than blue light. This is called dispersion, but what if the water drop is frozen as in Antarctica ?

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Some pages from my field book

Instead of entering a drop of liquid water, the sun-ray hits a tiny ice crystal located in the upper atmosphere. In fact, these tiny ice crystals are visible as hazy Cirrus clouds hovering  thousands of meters above Antarctica’s surface… peaceful and wispy. As H20 tends to form hexagonal shapes in its solid state, you can think of the ice-crystals as beehive-shaped sticks. The sun-ray is refracted twice when it travels through the ‘beehive’, but is not reflected as within a drop of liquid water. Therefore the initially white sun-ray is less ‘unfolded’ when it leaves the ice-crystal. The resulting spectrum may be visible for our human eyes, but only as a white narrow ring around the sun. If you look closely enough though, you can actually see that the white ring is a bit more red on its inside and blue on its outside.

And here the take home message: rainbows in Antarctica are extremely rare. The last one at the Priestley Glacier must have been several million years ago, when the last raindrops fell in this area. Halos, in turn, occur almost every other day. Can you spot the colors in the picture above ?

 

 

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